HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan
I had an aisle seat as the crowded airliner droned over the Persian Gulf toward the Afghan desert. The thin old man to my right was dressed in traditional garb, a white scarf wrapped above his weathered brown face and haggard, gray beard.
"Where are you from?" he asked.
"The United States," I replied.
"I from Pakistan," he said, lightly tapping his chest.
The small talk punctuated the final leg of a two-day, 7,000-mile journey from Tampa to Kabul, where I would begin a three-week stay as a journalist embedded with the Marines.
I had given up journalism nine years before in favor of teaching high school. But as the debate over what do in Afghanistan droned on through the summer and fall, I decided to dust off my notebook and camera, jump back into my former life. What better way, I thought, to spend Christmas break?
I booked the final flight from Dubai to Kabul on Pamir, the cheapest airline I could find and one Westerners typically avoid. Which is how I found myself the only American among a capacity crowd of Middle Easterners, including my Pakistani neighbor.
"Oh," I replied with a smile. "From Pakistan …"
"Yes," he went on. "Much shooting in Pakistan."
"Yes," I responded. "Very sad."
"No," the old man purred, still smiling. "Shooting good," and his fingers curled toward his palm as he pretended to shoot me with a pistol.
• • •
From the airport a taxi took me along the grimy, ramshackle boulevard to the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force. I walked the final series of zigzagging cement barricades, punctuated with checkpoints of heavily armed soldiers from several of the 43 nations that make up the NATO coalition force. After a final checkpoint I was led into an office area where I was greeted by an upbeat U.S. Army officer.
"We're protecting the people of Afghanistan to give the country back to the Afghans," said Col. Wayne M. Shanks, chief of public affairs for the ISAF. "All else supports that basic premise."
I donned my helmet and body armor for the ride from the ISAF compound to the helicopter that would take me south to Helmand province. My British Army driver asked me and another journalist our blood types, in case we were wounded. Then he pointed out a handwritten list of vehicles taped inside our 4-wheel-drive Toyota, explaining that they belonged to suspected car bombers we should watch for. We were then given code words to repeat over the radio if the driver or his partner riding shotgun had to start shooting, or were wounded or killed. Then the driver gave us one final code word to use at the camp gate — "If you have to run for it."
Suddenly it seemed like everyone was pointing a gun at me and I hadn't even reached my final destination — the military bases in southern Afghanistan, the front line for the Marines' upcoming offensive against the Taliban.
• • •
It was after midnight when the helicopter touched down at Forward Operating Base Geronimo. The desert sky was ablaze with stars. A flashlight-wielding Marine showed the new arrivals to our tent in the camp's eerie darkness.
Generators hummed throughout the small village of 12-cot tents and several small plywood buildings. Razor wire topped a berm surrounding the base. Recent rains had turned the desert floor into something like soft-serve ice cream. We slogged across camp so our guide could show us the open-air toilets — the "p--- tubes," large PVC pipes protruding from the ground that served as urinals, and "burn s---ters," 55-gallon drums that had been cut in half and placed under plywood stalls. Each day someone pulled them out, doused them in gasoline and set them on fire.
Preparations for the troop surge President Barack Obama had announced a couple of weeks earlier were evident everywhere. At Camp Leatherneck, the Marines' main base where I had stopped over briefly on my way to Geronimo, long rows of steel shipping containers were stacked several high, and construction bustled along the camp's borders. While I was at Geronimo, Seabees drilled a 1,200-foot-deep well; they had just finished two more at another base.
"Once you have a reliable water source you can do more construction, have showers, a galley for better food," explained Navy Ensign Josh Baker.
The smaller camps have no heat. Bathing is done with baby wipes, and MREs turn ice cold before they're half eaten. But during three weeks I never heard a complaint. One evening as I climbed fully clothed into my sleeping bag, I groaned, "Damn, it's cold in here!"
"Sir," a Marine said, "the guys here before us were sleeping in the dirt."
• • •
The morning after I arrived, I met Lt. Col. Matthew Baker, commander of 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines. He echoed the mission statement I had heard when I arrived in Kabul: provide security in the region while supporting Afghan National Security forces so the government of Afghanistan can take control of the district.
"The people of Nawa believe that we're going to win," he assured me.
During the interview, another Marine entered the simple plywood office to tell Baker that a "tic" (or "troops in contact," a battle with the enemy) had erupted about 6 miles away. Baker asked for updates then narrowed his eyes in a brief silence. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Marine stepped from his desk and tapped a wall map.
"I can go over there and whack insurgents all day long," he said of Marjah, which was soon going to be the focus of the Marines' offensive. But would that bring the stability necessary for the Afghan government to take control of the area? he asked.
"If you don't have enough guys, the answer is no," he said. "The surge is going to mean that we're able to expand this bubble which is Nawa, which is an incredible success story."
One night while I was there, the district governor invited Baker and several other officers to a dinner at the compound of municipal offices then under construction next to Patrol Base Jaker, a smaller base several miles from Geronimo.
During the meal, the district governor grew animated as he talked about getting the heavy machinery to begin a construction company to build roads and other projects. Baker was careful to remind his host that the machinery would belong to the people of Nawa, and not just one person or family.
"It's an alien concept and they don't get that," Baker later said of the regional Afghan leaders. "They have no concept of patience, of the greater good. . . . For 30 years it's been nothing but the mob rules."
• • •
The day after Christmas I put on my body armor for a ride in an MRAP (mine resistant ambush protected) vehicle for a trip to a combat outpost in the area. Lance Cpl. Timothy Kuklis likes to sing while he drives the 14-ton vehicle — everything from opera to Build Me Up, Buttercup.
He said he uses interpreters or body language to communicate with the local adults, who he said are generally "reserved." But the children are fearless as they rush his vehicle to beg for candy. The 20-year-old said he was puzzled by one boy who never asked for treats.
"One time I got out and asked why," Kuklis recalled. "He knew a little English and he said he wanted a notebook and pen so he could practice writing English."
The next trip out, the young Marine took a pad and pen to the boy. "He was excited and he started writing and drawing pictures in it for me right away," Kuklis said. "It definitely meant a lot to him, and it definitely changed me."
On another day, I joined a foot patrol from Combat Outpost Spider Monkey, an even smaller base near Jaker. About a mile into the walk along the only paved road, we turned onto a path through a fallow cornfield. The radio crackled to life. We were told a battle was under way nearby, and we should stay put. A couple of hours later, after the sun had fallen, word came that a gunnery sergeant in another unit had lost both legs to a roadside bomb.
"Somewhere a Marine's living my worst nightmare," someone in the patrol murmured.
The next day Kuklis delivered me back to Jaker. I entered the adjacent municipal compound, where about 50 Afghan construction workers had stopped for a break. A curious group surrounded us as a 15-year-old worker, Bashir Ahmad, explained that he's in second grade and wants to be an engineer.
"Do you want the Americans to be here?" I asked.
A man who appeared to be in his early 20s muttered something to Bashir, and the boy said, "No, I do not want the Americans here."
I noticed seven older men seated on a straw mat nearby, sharing tea. The interpreter introduced me as an American reporter, and they invited me to join them.
"I'm happy with the Americans here," said 50-year-old Bahadir, district supervisor for the U.S. government's Cash for Work Program, which had organized the workers. "If you go back, once again it will be bloody."
All in the group agreed strongly when 31-year-old Mohamad Nadir said Pakistan was the root of the problem. When the United States funded the Afghan mujahideen in their fight against the occupying Soviets, the money went through Pakistan, he said. Now, he explained, money and weapons from that conflict are being used to back the Taliban.
"The U.S. can bring security here without fighting, if it deals with Pakistan," Nadir said. "Even if you send 100,000 troops, you won't succeed here until you stop Pakistan."
• • •
When I left Afghanistan, everyone was waiting nervously for early spring to see if the seeds the farmers had planted several weeks earlier would sprout as wheat, which had been given to them by the government, or as opium poppies that provide about 90 percent of the world's heroin and the bulk of the Taliban's operating funds. So much about the fate of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan would be revealed over the coming weeks. But one sobering piece of news came quickly.
Two days after I flew home, a Marine from the unit I was with and the British reporter who replaced me were killed by a bomb.
I recalled the hateful smile of the old Pakistani on the plane.
Steven Sims teaches theology at Tampa Catholic High School.